Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.
In 1982 -- an all-time amazing year for popular music by black people, and a not-too-shabby one for tunes by humans with less melanin as well -- nobody knew how big the former category would soon get. But by year's end, there were hints. Prince's first Top 10 LP, 1999, charted around Thanksgiving and Michael Jackson's best-selling-album-in-history, Thriller, on Christmas, and back in those pre-SoundScan days, albums could take forever to unravel. "Billie Jean," included on this playlist because "The Girl Is Mine" wasn't exactly competition, didn't technically become a single until 1983. The year's most critically acclaimed single by a mile -- one of the most universally praised ever -- was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's pioneering urban-reality rap "The Message," but hip-hop was still very much a minority music. In the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll, presented with a race-and-rhythm-centered Robert Christgau essay entitled "Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome," Marvin Gaye's oven-hot "Sexual Healing" -- ultimately his swan song -- finished a strong second.
And, as this mix shows, those records were merely the tip of an iceberg encompassing not only rap upstarts (some of them, like Afrika Bambaataa, suddenly discovering Teutonic electrobeats and laying groundwork for techno to come), but also old hands like Aretha Franklin and Southern soulman Z.Z. Hill; sinuous smoothies like Patrice Rushen and Keni Burke; rocking crossover pro Ray Parker Jr. and D.C. go-go bangers Trouble Funk; and all manner of fleeting acts bridging the gap between disco and house music. Some, like Junior and Imagination and the underage reggae band Musical Youth, came from England. Jamaican toasting (Lone Ranger), Caribbean soca (Explainer) and Nigerian juju (King Sunny Ade) staked their claims as well. As did Kid Creole and the Coconuts' Manhattan island-Latin polyglot groove: Like Musical Youth's surprise Top 10 hit "Pass the Dutchie," "No Fish Today" makes a party out of hunger. Add the desperation of "The Message" and for that matter Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City"; The Treacherous Three's Mardi Gras-syncopated inflation-plus-unemployment-equals-more-crime math in "Yes We Can-Can"; and perhaps even the rural-resentment backlash of Hank Williams Jr.'s "A Country Boy Can Survive" -- arguably 1982's most influential record, given reactionary male Nashville identity politics since -- and it's clear a recession was lingering.
Not that every other selection acknowledges it. John Cougar Not-Mellencamp-Yet's four-weeks-at-No.-1 heartland anthem "Jack and Diane," off one of the year's biggest albums, suggests economic doldrums, maybe, while "1999" envisions a purple-skied nuclear doomsday that 17 years later wound up not materializing. But if anything, 1982's reigning theme seems to be relationship drama -- resilient in The Human League's and Waitresses' cases; deceptive in Z.Z. Hill's and Ray Parker Jr.'s; suspicious in Sylvia's and Frida's; cracking up an insanely tawdry middle of the road in Laura Branigan's and Charlene's; and picking up scattered pieces in so many others, from Richard and Linda Thompson to alimony-shafted Jerry Reed to "Billie Jean" itself.
Until Thriller eventually displaced it, Men At Work's Aussie faux-wave reggae-rock Business As Usual -- which, given its vegemite sandwiches and fried-out combies, was anything but -- wound up at the top of the album chart in mid-November and stayed there for 15 weeks. And it's interesting what has happened to other giant '82 rock hits since: Survivor's six-weeks-at-No.-1 "Eye of the Tiger" seems forever campily tied to its era (and Sylvester Stallone) -- automatic self-parody even if actually inspiring marathon trainees or physical therapy patients. In contrast, Joan Jett's seven-weeks-at-No.-1 "I Love Rock 'N Roll" feels almost like a song out of time -- brand new whenever a young girl picks up her first guitar or drumsticks. There is no way of predicting these things; you just have to wait and see. Because while life may go on long after the thrill of livin' is gone, as a wise man said, sometimes the thrill goes on, too.